Small Wars Journal

The Presidential Elections in Mexico: A “Narco Spring”?

Mon, 07/16/2012 - 6:34pm

The apparent election of Enrique Pena-Nieto as President of Mexico is a development that is full of irony and contradictions. Pena-Nieto, from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), promised to create an open, transparent government that respects human rights and delivers economic growth.  However, most voters appeared to want a return to the past, when the PRI’s seven-decade rule was known as the “perfect dictatorship” and held a lock on the political process, economic investment and societal control.  It seemed to be this last part of the PRI’s ability, societal control, which tipped many people’s vote in favor of the PRI due to their fatigue from the nation’s unrelenting drug war.  As one woman explained her vote for the leader of the PRI, “He'll stabilize the cartels. He'll negotiate so they don't hurt innocents.”[1]  Yet, politicians negotiating with drug traffickers is inherently an undemocratic, secretive and corrupt practice. In short, when it comes to the promises of an open, transparent and clean government, many voters hoped Pena-Nieto was lying to them.

To be fair, Pena-Nieto has not promised to lay-off the cartels entirely, but his strategy appears to be far from clear.  In some instances he has said that he wants to remove the Mexican military from police work, but keep it in more violent cities.  He has said that he wants to create a type of national gendarmerie to take on the cartels, but how this new institution will differ from the Federal Police or work alongside it has not been spelled out.  He has mused that limiting the focus on capturing kingpins and concentrating on smaller drug trafficking organizations might bear fruit. The hazy outlines of all of this seem to mean that he will not directly take on the cartels as intensely as his predecessor.  Will a less confrontational approach by the incoming PRI president lead to a hoped reduction in Mexico’s drug fueled violence that has claimed over 50,000 in six years and created widespread misgivings about democracy among the Mexican citizenry?  Is this a “Narco Spring” where traffickers and gangsters are given a freer hand in the illegal drug trade as long as they stop the killings?

Other “Spring” movements were popular uprisings in authoritarian countries where citizens took to the streets and demanded transitions to democratic rule.  This is yet another contradiction represented by Mexico’s Narco Spring—it will be ushered in by a democratic process that included voters who wanted a return to a less democratic time, hoping that this will reduce the pressure on violent criminal enterprises and end the bloodshed.

Former senior members of PRI and Partido Accion Nacional (PAN) governments have prepared the fields for a Narco Spring by arguing for not just a less confrontational approach, but a tacit deal that involves the government permitting the cartels to traffic drugs without high-level violence in exchange for limited prosecutions and the end of extraditions to the US.  Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda suggested illegal activities by the cartels would be permitted if they curbed public violence.[2] President Fox’s former spokesperson, Ruben Aguilar, argued that “we must constrain the actions of organized crime, obligate them to obey the rules of operation and in this context, we would have to accept the possibility of…legalizing the sale of drugs under certain agreements.”[3] One of the PRI’s leaders in the senate seemed to pine for a return to the old understandings between it and the cartels by saying that when the PRI was in power “I never saw a decapitation in the streets of Mexico.”[4]

There are many reasons that a Narco Spring will not live up to the hopes of a less violent Mexico.  Re-establishing the previous arrangements between the PRI and the drug cartels is moot because many of the contemporary drug trafficking organizations and their leaders were not around before the PAN came to power in the year 2000.  There are also a greater number of large and small trafficking groups, making any sort of balance of power brokered by the PRI less than plausible.  All of this has been clear even in the intervening 12 years of the PAN’s hold on the Presidency; much of the political power in Mexico has been pushed out towards the states.  Four of the six most violent states have had PRI governors during the time that the PAN held the Presidency; in two of these states—Coahuila and Tamaulipas—the PRI has never lost power.  In spite of the authority of the PRI in these regions, drug violence continued or worsened.

The unlikely success of a Narco Spring would nonetheless bode ill for Mexico.  Rather than viewing a government rapprochement with the cartels as the failure of the rule of law, Mexican civil society may become amenable, making such tacit deal making more broadly acceptable.  Under such a “peace”, it would be difficult to know where the drug cartels’ influence on Mexican politics begins or ends, or even if the government has any means to affect the actions of the cartels should they step outside the tacit agreement.  Any Narco Spring could be merely a transition towards Mexico becoming a fully flourishing narco-state. 

[1] Mark Stevenson and Katherine Corcoran, “Mexico’s Former Ruling Party Voted Back Into Office”,, 2 July 2012, URL:

[2] Robert Bonner, “New Cocaine Cowboys”, Foreign Affairs, (July/August 2010), URL:

[3] Grayson, Mexico:  Narco-Violence and a Failed State?, (New Brunswick:  Transaction Publishers, 2010), 258.

[4] “Saddling Up for the Trail to Los Pinos”, Economist, 29 January 2011, 34.


Categories: El Centro